The southern provinces of the Netherlands, still under Spanish rule, were headed by Flanders and Brabant (in the main the territory of modern Belgium). The population lived in uncertain conditions, constantly tormented by the threat of war. Yet the short respite enjoyed between 1609 and 1621 had a favourable impact on the cultural and intellectual life of the country. In the early part of the new century a school of humanists and specialists in antiquity came into being. The Spanish governor himself attended lectures given by one of them – an outstanding Flemish scholar, historian and philologist – Justus Lipsius at the University of Leuven, who had published the works of the Roman philosopher, Seneca. Yet the most sparkling contribution of all to the culture of 17th-century was that of the Southern Netherlands (referred to as Flanders, the name of the largest of the provinces) through painting.
At the turn of the 16th century the traditions of the preceding era were still very much alive. Landscapes occupied an important place in Flemish painting. Jan Brueghel (1568-1625) – younger son of Pieter Brueghel the Elder – was continuing to work: on account of the elegance of his workmanship he was referred to as the 'Velvet' Brueghel.
Pictures with religious content were still being painted in Catholic Flanders, first and foremost in order to decorate churches. Yet many compositions on subjects drawn from the Old and New Testament began to be perceived as historical and they were also used to embellish secular buildings. Flemish painting came into its own after the return to his homeland of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) in 1606, after he had spent eight years in Italy.
In the work of this master there was to be found all that was truly advanced and important in European culture of the time. His intellect, rare talent, erudition and tireless artistic imagination thrilled Rubens' contemporaries. This painter, who was well versed in the Ancient World (an archaeologist and architectural historian), undertook complex diplomatic missions striving to achieve peace for his homeland which had known so much suffering. Rubens had a deep love for his native Flanders and was keenly aware of its people's spirit. The Flemings' exuberant attitude to life was something close to Rubens' heart and he shared their passionate longing for peace and prosperity. This dream of happiness and plenty also left its mark on the work of Rubens' long-term assistant, a leading master of the Flemish still life, Frans Snyders (1579-1657). Another painter closely linked with Rubens was Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), one of the leading portrait painters of the 17th century. His work combined precise observation with the endeavour to bring out the fine nuances of his model's nobility of spirit.
The flowering of the Flemish school of painting lasted just over three decades The gradual decline began to make itself felt soon after Ruben's death. In 1632 van Dyck departed for England and in 1657 Snyders died. Only Jakob Jordaens (1593-1678) was still creating pictures in the second half of the century towards the end of his long life. His sturdy, somewhat staid and coarse painting was more concerned with figures and images drawn from the life of the common people.
Pictures of peasant life were also the focus of the painter David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690), who enjoyed success in his life-time. His works were gladly purchased by collectors in the centuries that followed. Teniers' compositions teem with episodes drawn from domestic life. The main preoccupation for this artist was everyday life in the countryside and those who peopled it.